What Is This Thing Called "News"

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Gans, Herbert, “Journalistic Practices and their Problems,” from “Democracy and the News,” Chap 3.
  • Entman, “Democracy without citizens”
  • Carey, James, “The dark continent of American journalism”

Reality check: Democracy doesn’t function according to the highest ideals for it, and neither does the journalism that seeks to inform the democratic process. That’s what all three readings this week seem to be saying — especially “Journalistic Practices and Their Problems” by Herbert Gans and “The Dark Continent of American Journalism” by James Carey.

The thesis of Robert Entman’s essay “How the Media Affect What People Think — and Think They Think” is that journalism does, indeed, influence public opinion. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the “autonomy models” he challenges, this would seem revelatory to me. Regardless, echoes of Entman’s “interdependence model” can also be found in Carey’s premise, especially in regard to the collaborative act of journalism’s more narrative forms.

Gans details the ways that the operating structure of modern, popular news media trip up journalists in pursuit of the profession’s democratic ideals. The convenience of top-down news, the pitfalls of reporting for mass-production, and the habit of reducing data to oversimplified terms that don’t illuminate real complexities all perpetuate widespread misunderstanding or confusion about how the business of the nation is conducted. This dysfunction is exacerbated, Gans asserts, by a disconnect between what journalists think the public should do with their reporting and how most people actually interact with democracy.

If journalism were to take off the blinders of this “democratic ideal,” he says, then perhaps they’d be able to see “the larger forces that drive politics” and how those forces can manipulate journalism itself. And if journalism broadened its definition of news to include more than politics — in particular, if it did a better job of reporting the economy as it plays out in the lives of the public — then perhaps the media would actually produce news that people could use.

Carey also shares Gans’s contention that most of the American public is woefully ill-informed, although he describes this more thoroughly by way of his analogy that journalism is like a curriculum in which most people stop at the introductory course (ie: the daily news). Carey explains, fittingly, the “how” and “why” of this truism by telling the stories that illustrate how and why the “how” and “why” are left out of the daily press — again, due to many of the operational systems detailed by Gans. Once the facts of a story are handled, he says, it’s the “how” and “why” that people need most in response to an inevitable, human urge to understand the world around us and our place in it. Yet it’s the “how” and “why” that the daily press simply doesn’t have the means to explain.

Suggestions for ways to improve this dysfunction are implicit in Carey’s essay. He details the different ways that journalists attempt to answer the “why” and the ways in which those methods are insufficient. Aside from the express admonition to not rely as much on motive as an explanation, a reader is mostly left to infer that she should do a better job of using cause and consequence as explanations. The technique of applying significance to even random events seems to get a pass from his judgmental eye, and a brief reference to a failed movement toward “precision journalism” is left surprisingly undeveloped.

To reevaluate journalism as it’s actually practiced and perceived, and to do that within a context of reevaluating how democracy actually plays out in modern society, as Gans and Carey do, is especially useful now as journalism is changing. In fact, the correlation that Carey draws between how journalistic standards and practices evolved in direct response to technological developments lends itself perfectly to today’s media landscape. He’s connected many dots in our past, and I am left with the sense that our current trajectory has departed the most recent but yet to land on the next. I wonder how our societal expectations of journalism — and how our values as practicing journalists — will take shape next. And I wonder what all that will mean for country and the world of countries we live among.

Assuming Entman’s assertion of the “interdependence model” of journalism is accurate, then Gans’s suggestions of how to report on democracy in a different way (by treating more than politics as newsworthy would be a start) would imply that the American public could actually interact with our democracy in a different way. Perhaps, then, media now more than ever has the opportunity to influence the direction of the nation.

What I’m left wondering — for myself and also on behalf of all three authors — is whether or not that’s a good thing.

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